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11: Whisky and Reminiscence

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Author Topic: 11: Whisky and Reminiscence  (Read 62 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 09:47:48 am »

DEREK bumped into somebody on the pavement as he turned from saying good-bye to Lady Barber. Automatically he murmured an apology and passed on, but he had not taken two steps before he felt his arm gripped, and a voice said quietly in his ear, “Not a word! We may be observed!”

Looking round Derek saw that it was Pettigrew. He held one finger to his lips in the manner of a stage conspirator. Then he glanced over his shoulder, still keeping his hold on Derek’s arm, and went on in his natural voice,

“It’s all right! She’s getting into a taxi. Now we can go and have a drink.”

“It’s awfully kind of you,” said Derek in some confusion, “but I’m afraid I can’t. I’ve got to get to Waterloo to catch a train.”

“Nonsense! There are plenty of trains from Waterloo, and it can’t be of any consequence to you which you catch. You will be travelling in the black-out in any case, so it won’t make a ha’p’orth of difference. Is your presence very urgently required at wherever it is?”

Derek, the memory of his disappointing holiday strong within him, felt impelled to answer, “No.”

“Very good. Well, your presence is urgently required by me. Because I am going to have a drink. Several drinks. In fact, by the end of the evening I should not be surprised if I were verging on the blotto, in a quite gentlemanly way, of course, but definitely verging.”

“But----” said Derek.

“I know what you are going to say. As a purist, not to say an idealist, you object that a verge cannot be definite. And you are, of course, perfectly right. Nothing could be less definite than this particular verge. I have often tried myself to distinguish the precise moment when one goes over it, but in vain. At one moment you are depressingly, stupidly sober, at the next you are gloriously, happily tight. But where exactly the transformation takes place, I never can determine. And goodness knows, I have tried often enough.

“However,” Pettigrew continued, hurrying Derek along and completely disregarding his attempts to protest, “I am not asking you to accompany me as far as the verge. For one thing, a young man of your obvious attainments will almost certainly have a very good head for liquor, and it would be much too expensive. For another, the spectacle of their seniors upon the verge or---who knows what the evening may bring?---actually over it, is not good for persons of your age. All that I require from you is your company on the first stage of the journey. I always find”, he said, turning a corner, going up a flight of steps and pushing open a door, “that the first few drinks of the evening are cold and unsatisfying affairs unless one has a friend to share them. Later---put your hat and coat over there---a man is his own best company, perhaps. That depends on the man of course. I can only speak for myself, and even then without much assurance. I am having a double whisky. What about you?”

Derek found himself in a comfortable arm-chair in the smoking-room of what was evidently Pettigrew’s club---a shabby little place about as different from the smart establishment which he had just left as could well be imagined. While the drinks were being brought, he had for the first time the opportunity of seeing clearly the face of his host. Pettigrew’s flow of words had come to an abrupt end. He looked tired, Derek thought, and wore an expression of discouragement which he had not seen before. He sat silently, staring into the fire, as if he had forgotten the existence of the guest upon whom he had forced himself a moment or two ago.

The appearance of the whisky recalled Pettigrew to his surroundings.

“Your health!” he said, taking a long drink. “And how are the ideals? Still as rampant as ever?”

“I haven’t lost them yet, anyhow,” said Derek.

“Quite right. I had them too at your age. Ideals and ambitions and oh! lots of things. They don’t last, though. Have you seen the evening paper, by any chance?”

“No. Is there anything about ideals in it?”

“Not exactly. About ambitions, though. I don’t mean your ambitions, of course. I expect they are front page stuff with headlines. This is very small beer---merely a small paragraph in a corner somewhere.”

He took another drink.

“They’ve gone and made Jefferson a County Court Judge,” he said.

Derek tried to look intelligent.

“Jefferson!” Pettigrew repeated in a tone of contempt.

“Was that a job you---I mean, had you expected----?” Derek began diffidently.

“Had I applied for the job? is what you are trying to say. Certainly I had. It’s an ingrained habit of mine. To be accurate, it is the fifth County Court Judgeship which I have applied for. The fifth and last.”

Pettigrew put down an empty glass.

“Oh, well,” Derek said, “I don’t see why it should be the last. It’s rotten luck, of course, but next time----”

“No!” said Pettigrew in an irritated tone. “My young and unlearned friend, you miss the entire point. (Just touch the bell beside you, will you?) It is not the fact that I haven’t got the job that distresses me and causes me to drink, but the fact that Jefferson has. Now do you see?”

“Not knowing Jefferson, I can’t say that I do.”

“Quite right. In not knowing Jefferson you have a very decided advantage over me. (Two more double whiskies, please, waiter.) But I don’t want to prejudice you against him. After all, you are thinking of coming to the Bar and may have to appear before him. The essential odiousness of Jefferson---and he is odious---is not the point. Neither is the fact that the public has been presented with a thundering bad judge when it might have had an average good one. The point is that nobody, not even the rummiest Lord Chancellor, is ever going to make me a County Court Judge after Jefferson. D’you see? If he and I are on a list of possibles together and they choose him, with all his imperfections on his wig and five years my junior, well, it simply means that next time I’m not a possible at all. If only because, as you will have occasion to observe one day, one does not grow any younger. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose, but I had rather it was anybody than Jefferson. (Thank you, waiter.) Well, let’s forget about him.”

He raised his second glass to his lips.

Derek did not often drink two whiskies so close together, and he found that their effect, at first at any rate, was to produce an unusual clarity of mind. He was not particularly interested in Jefferson, but he was interested in Pettigrew and in a good many things with which Pettigrew was in some way connected; and this seemed to be a good opportunity for improving his knowledge of them. His host’s next words gave him the opening he sought.

“Well,” he said, “and how is her ladyship? Have you been enjoying an afternoon’s poodle-faking?”

“She is quite well,” said Derek. “But rather badly worried.”

“That I can quite believe. A black eye is a very worrying thing for a good-looking woman.”

“How did you know about that?” Derek asked in surprise. The events at Wimblingham had, at the Judge’s particular request, not been made public in any way.

Pettigrew grinned.

“Things do get about you know,” he said. “Besides, I was at Wimblingham myself.”

“I know,” said Derek rather uncomfortably. “But of course it isn’t only the black eye that is worrying Lady Barber.”

“No. One way and another Father William has been having a fairly uncomfortable circuit. What does Hilda think about it all?”

“She thinks that there is someone behind it all.”

“All?”

“Yes---the letters, the chocolates, her black eye. She thinks that one person is responsible for them.”

“M-m.” Pettigrew wrinkled his nose. The second half of his whisky remained forgotten at his elbow. “Well, that’s always possible, of course. And who does she think this one person is?”

“Well, the first name she suggested to the detective was Heppenstall.”

“The detective? So this wasn’t a tête-à-tête? Scotland Yard was represented too?”

“Yes. A fellow called Mallett came along.”

“Oho! That looks as if somebody was really worried. And what did Mallett think about Heppenstall?”

“Not very much. In fact, he didn’t seem to be very much impressed by the whole theory. But I found it all very difficult to follow, I’m so much in the dark. I wish you’d tell me who this Heppenstall is. His name seems to keep on cropping up and I don’t know what it’s all about.”

Pettigrew emptied his glass and leaned back in his chair, his legs stretched out, looking at the fire. He seemed to be seeing something there and to be intent on what he saw.

“Just ring the bell again,” he said. “This confounded waiter never seems to be about when you want him. Thanks. Heppenstall? Oh, he was just a solicitor who went wrong. He misappropriated some of his client’s money, came up before Father William at the Old Bailey, and got a pretty stiff sentence. That’s all.”

“Oh,” said Derek in a disappointed tone.

“Yes. Oh, here you are, waiter. Will you have another? Well, perhaps you are wise. One more double, then, please. What were we talking about? Oh, yes, Heppenstall. A sad case, as these cases always are.”

Nothing further was said until the fresh whisky had been brought. Pettigrew put into it the smallest possible dash of soda, drank it off at a gulp, set down the glass and said violently, “No!

Derek looked at him in surprise and began to wonder whether the “verge” had been reached. But Pettigrew was now talking as collectedly as ever, though, if possible, with even greater fluency.

“There is something about the third glass of whisky,” he said, “which makes it quite impossible to tell a lie, even by implication. For me, at any rate, the third glass is the third degree. The last barriers go down and I come clean---or dirty, as the case may be, but at least I come true. I told you a thumping lie, just now.”

“About Heppenstall?”

“Yes. He was a solicitor and he was sentenced by the Shaver for pinching his client’s money. But that’s not all, by a very long chalk. If it were, nobody would be bothering about him. I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you about it. If I don’t somebody else will, and I can do it very much better than anyone who is likely to talk about it. And since you are more or less mixed up in his affairs, I’m not at all sure that it’s not my duty to tell you.”

Pettigrew lit a cigarette.

“Heppenstall was a client of mine in my early days,” he said, idly watching the smoke curl upwards. “I rather liked him. He was smart---in both senses of the word---clever at his profession and by way of being a man about town, both the City and the West End. He put quite a lot of work in my way. It was mostly small stuff, but Heppenstall was a small man then. I was in the same chambers as the Shaver. The head of them was---but that wouldn’t interest you. The Shaver was senior to me and a cut above the kind of stuff Heppenstall was handing out then. Well, the war came, and of course I went. It was while I was away that his practice really began to grow.”

“Whose practice do you mean?” asked Derek. “Heppenstall’s or Barber’s?”

“Both. Simultaneously and conjointly. Heppenstall began to get into a really big class of business. He acquired some important City clients, and at the same time managed to collect some flashy society litigation of the kind that makes a splash in the newspapers. And my clerk---who was also, of course, the Shaver’s clerk---saw to it that he remained faithful to the chambers. Not that he wanted much persuading, I fancy, after the first two or three briefs had been dealt with. The Shaver did him well---and Heppenstall did the Shaver well. It’s not too much to say that Heppenstall made him. He came along at just the critical moment, you see, when the Shaver was too senior to be seen messing about with the small stuff which I had been only too glad to do, but hadn’t properly established himself among the heavy-weight juniors. It was Heppenstall who just gave him the push that put him where he belonged, among the people who counted. And when the big boom in litigation developed immediately after the war, the pair of them were right in the thick of it, and Heppenstall must have put thousands of pounds into the Shaver’s pockets while it lasted.”

He yawned and threw his cigarette into the fire.

“I was back from the war by then, of course,” he said. “Naturally I went back into the old chambers---of which the Shaver was the head by then---but I didn’t stay there long. I---I didn’t find it altogether agreeable, so I took myself off elsewhere. I never had another brief from Heppenstall again. I can’t blame him---he was very well off where he was. And when the Shaver took silk, there was another perfectly competent junior in the same stable to carry on. However, that is neither here nor there. This isn’t my history, but Heppenstall’s. After the Shaver went into the front row, he continued to brief him. He dined and wined with him, he held Hilda’s hand after dinner, discussing, no doubt, the Rule in Shelley’s Case and other subjects dear to the heart of that learned lady----”

“And all the time he was stealing his client’s money?” said Derek, horrified.

“My dear idealist, these things happen, you know. As a matter of fact, it was not until 1931 that Heppenstall began to be a little unconventional in his treatment of other people’s funds. He had been speculating a good deal---the man about the City working overtime to keep up the appearance of the man about the West End, I suppose---and the slump caught him short. He borrowed a little from one account to put himself right, helped himself out of another to get the first account straight, and so it went on. Then just when the Law Society was beginning to interest itself in the affaire Heppenstall, the Shaver went on to the Bench, and the pair of them met again at the Old Bailey. Comprenez?

“Yes. It must have been a pretty dreadful moment for them both.”

“If you think that, you miss the whole point of the story. It was dreadful enough for Heppenstall, no doubt. He pleaded guilty, of course, and somebody or other put up the usual palaver in mitigation. But the Shaver---who, if he had had any bowels, would never have allowed himself to try the case at all---he positively gloated over the wretched man. It wasn’t only the sentence he gave him, though that was stiff enough in all conscience, but the way in which he behaved. I wasn’t there myself---thank goodness; but I have talked to people who were, and I read the reports in the papers afterwards, and I tell you it was beastly---beastly---beastly!

Whisky had made Derek bold. “Is that the reason why you dislike him so much?” he asked.

Pettigrew seemed to shrink into himself.

“I said just now that this isn’t my story but Heppenstall’s,” he answered stiffly. “But I’ll go this far---that if Heppenstall is giving him a few bad nights, I shan’t be sorry, and I don’t think I’m the only person to feel that way, either. Can you wonder?” He looked at the clock. “What about your train?” he added.

Derek saw that he was dismissed, and rose to his feet.

“I must be going,” he said. “But I ought to mention that the Inspector didn’t take very kindly to the notion that Heppenstall was responsible for everything that has happened.”

“So you’ve said already. Did he suggest anybody who was?”

Derek began now to regret that he had spoken, but it was too late to draw back.

“Well,” he said. “He went through all the possibilities in a methodical sort of way, and he seemed to think that if one person was at the back of everything---which he didn’t altogether believe----”

“Yes?”

“The one person must be you.”

For the life of him, Derek could not say whether Pettigrew was amused or not. Certainly his lips twitched at the corners as though he were about to laugh, but his eyes remained grave and his voice, when he finally spoke, was quiet and serious.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll remember that.”

“But please don’t think that I----” Derek stammered in confusion.

“My dear chap----!”

“It was only just a suggestion of the Inspector’s. I don’t think he meant it seriously. And Hilda wouldn’t hear of it for a moment. She fairly snapped his head off.”

“Oh, Hilda did, did she? That was kind of her. You might thank her for me. No, on second thoughts, better not. By the way, have there been any more developments in that unfortunate affair with the car at Markhampton?”

“None that I know of. I think the Judge has had some letters about it, but of course I haven’t been told anything----”

“H’m. For what it’s worth, I have a notion that that’s a good deal the most serious thing threatening the Shaver at the present moment. In his position, a writ can do more damage than a dozen poisoned chocolates. Well, good night, and thank you for your company. I’ve enjoyed our talk. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I don’t somehow think I shall want now to get anywhere nearer the verge than I am at this moment, and that’s a long way off. So if anybody asks you why you’re so late home to-night, you can explain that you’ve been occupied in saving an old gentleman from a nasty headache to-morrow morning. Good night!”

---

Derek travelled home on a slow train in utter darkness. He felt that he had spent an interesting day. His one regret was that it was to be followed by another day of boredom and stagnation at home. Never was regret less justified. For on the next morning, chance brought him into contact with Sheila Bartram, and his whole world was instantly transformed.

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